Thursday, September 12, 2013

Response to President Putin’s Op-Ed


Dear Mr. President,

Your recent article published by the New York Times received much attention internationally and within the U.S., its targeted audience. It is a bit refreshing to see a political leader speak to the public.

Typical of American journalism and political dysfunction, much of attention focuses on the last paragraph of the article. You know the one, about American exceptionalism.  And since this is where the attention is, let me deal with that last.

Let me start by saying I am confused as to what the violence in Syria aims to accomplish.  You say it is a "conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country”, but then say “Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern”.  So, this is not a strictly internal conflict. It would seem na├»ve to think other countries do not have a stake in this conflict and/or the outcome. International actors are involved, not just mercenaries and not just the United States. Events in Syria can, probably will, affect the international community no matter which side triumphs, if that is an appropriate term. In the 21st century, no internal conflict is strictly internal. Word gets out, influence spreads, interests shift and the world is involved, directly or indirectly.

So what do Syrians want? This civil war has raged so long and so violently that the opposition’s goal is foggy to us, and possibly to themselves. Nevertheless, a key component of their goal seems to be the removal from power of the Assad regime. Questions abound as to what would happen next if that does happen, or even if it does not. What happens when peace avails, no matter how long from now that may be? You mentioned there was not clear opposition and terrorist groups comprise some part of the anit-Assad movement. What happens if these forces seek retribution on Russia for incorporating a diplomatic pause or, hopefully, resolution?  How would Russia respond to terrorist plots against it planned outside of Russia?  This presents a slippery slope.

Let me touch upon the rule of law, which is crucial, but to follow it strictly because it “is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not” is an important point. I am sure many people would disagree: Jews of 1930s/40s Europe, African slaves of the Americas, or Cambodians in the late 1970s. People have a right to oppose laws that are bad, wrong, counterproductive, impediments, or just plain evil (all of which are subjective, which strengthens the complexities). Only dictators impose Absolute Rule of laws.  Whether the laws of and within Syria are any of these is not up to us to decide, though it is apparent that people of Syria have. Whether good or bad, human actions do not fit neatly into written laws, religious or otherwise.

Perhaps this highlights a difference between Russia and the U.S. that underlies the lack of communication between them, much to our dismay. For the most part, we tend to ponder the role of law, while in Russia the rule of law is, apparently, paramount. Gun control in the U.S. is a hot debate (although it shouldn't be “debated”) and laws respective to this are interpreted, challenged, altered, vetoed and re-written seemingly monthly. We have laws backed by reason; it is not uncommon for unreasonable or outdated laws to be ignored or removed (e.g. honking a car horn as you enter town to warn the horses). Unfortunately, Reason seems to be on vacation lately and extreme, almost fanatical, positions spring up in America on just about all issues. I see this in the international community as well, perhaps emboldened by U.S. unilateralism, or through international apathy. But the key issue remains: authority has no power unless it is vetted.

The use of chemical weapons violates international law—but so, too, would attacking a sovereign nation without provocation or U.N. Security Council approval.  A conundrum no matter who actually release the chemical weapons, which is probably close to impossible to prove.  Ignoring their use because of this possibility is easy; dealing with it is much more difficult.  Thankfully, Russia interjected in the predicament involving Syria and chemical weapons.  A needed pause, and hopefully a peaceful advantage is within reach.  This should include open dialogue, as you espouse, with the international community, including Syria.  Yet the international community does not have a monopoly on dialogue. Syrian internal dialogue is needed, as I am sure the government and opposition have disagreements. Realization of this dialogue is slim, but with great effort and commitment, it can be done. 

The United Nations was set up to assist in international peace, if not harmony. Yet it was built upon the ashes of World War II as you noted, but the world is much different now. Yes, international communication and bipartisanship is still important, but so, too, is internal violence: War is still war, it knows no boundaries. You agree, at least to a point.  I urge you, and others, to use the auspices and spirit of the U.N. to help resolve the Syrian conflict. Yes, it is an internal matter. It is also true that it is not merely internal. Perhaps it is time to have another look at international laws, the role of the U.N., the responsibility of nations, and the influence of militaries, all of which rely upon the Reason, Compassion and Education of human beings.

Ok, now to the last paragraph.  You are right about Exceptionalism; it can be dangerous. We can go back to 1930s Europe again to highlight this fact.   As for the average American, exceptionalism is less common that it used to be. There is nothing exceptional about endless bickering, embraced ignorance or endless finger pointing. The American public has, for the most part, lost its way. There was hope that the Age of Information would bring people, communities and nations together, no matter how different they, or their policies, may be.  Sadly, this has not turned out to be the case. Not yet anyway. We continue to slack on responsibility, empathy and listening.

You are also wrong. America has flaws, true, just like any other country.  Where America is exceptional resides in what America is built upon. It is the most culturally, racially and religiously diverse nation in the world, and we do not fight…much. While it is human nature is to focus on differences, Americans tend to (but not always, to be sure) find similarities among them and with others. Not only do we abhor human rights violations, even our own, but we strive to do something about it, which is not always easy, popular or internationally legal. The responsibility America puts upon itself is burdensome, but we carry on, insisting on Peace, Liberty and Freedom.  Sometimes our leaders (political and religious) prey upon such capacity and lead us astray. It takes effort to bring back our Founding Fathers’ resilience and wisdom, but we insist on it. Their ideals and principles shape our society. As such, our impulse, our gut reaction, is to, at least, question authoritarian offenses, and to fight atrocities.  Effectiveness of air strikes, not the motivation, against Syria is the main impediment.  This is the core of America, and that is exceptional.